Blocks of tofu stir-fried in a spicy, thick sauce studded with sweet peas is a winter comfort food for me. It clears the sinuses, tickles the tastebuds and it’s wickedly quick to produce. I never thought others would care much for it, knowing that tofu can be a tough sell. But after sharing this dish a few times over the years, many have dug in appreciatively and asked how it was done. It’s criminally easy so here goes.
Not quite ma po tofu, one of the most famous dishes of Sichuan cuisine, this chili-stained tofu is a simpler rendition that happens to be vegan, too. It doesn’t have the bits of minced or ground pork that cling to the tofu in the classic dish, nor the cracked Szechuan peppercorns on top. It isn’t drowned in vermilion chili oil, and it has the addition of green peas. But it’s not really supposed to be an imitation of that dish, just another spicy tofu, with chili-bean sauce.
This distinctive sauce is an essential pantry item in many Chinese and Taiwanese kitchens. A paste made with fermented soybeans and chili, it has an ultra-salty, umami taste as well as a fiery kick. Similar sauces might have no chilies, or other types of fermented beans (such as black beans, often paired with garlic in a sauce). It’s not very different from miso paste from Japan, except that the bean sauce has visible pieces of beans still intact. In English, this sauce might be called “bean paste,” “chili-bean paste,” or “soy paste,” alternately, but the main ingredients are just fermented soybeans and chilies, with minimal spices like garlic.
To dilute its intense flavor and make a thick sauce, just combine this with some cornstarch and cold water, and maybe a few splashes of soy sauce in a bowl. Now all that needs to be done in advance is to chop the tofu, and fresh spices. I’ve lately been using a combination of garlic and ginger, because fresh ginger always makes me feel energized, but just chopped garlic will suffice just fine, too. A chopped scallion for garnish is great, and if you’ve got some handy (like I did), fresh cilantro, too.
From the moment that the oil begins to sizzle on the pan to the dish being ready to serve with rice takes all of three to four minutes. It’s well worth it, too. I just love lapping up this custardy soup of hot spice when it’s cold. The peas add the perfect little bursts of texture to the otherwise softer-than-baby-food dish. You can use any type of tofu you prefer to change up the texture as well, from firmer types that break apart little when stirred, to silken or soft tofu which separate into bits throughout the sauce.
Either way, you’ll be enjoying soybeans in two ways: as a fresh curd of white protein, bound into blocks, or as a savory, fermented flavoring agent. That’s a lot of soy joy.
Tofu With Chili-Bean Sauce and Peas
(makes about 2 servings)
14 oz. fresh medium or firm tofu, cut to 1″ cubes
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon chili-bean sauce (found in Asian markets)
3-4 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup cold water
2 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
salt and pepper to taste
Have all ingredients chopped, prepared and within easy reach. Combine the cornstarch, water, soy sauce and chili-bean sauce in a bowl and stir well.
Heat a large, wide saucepan or wok over high heat with the oil and add the garlic and ginger. Once fragrant, after 30 seconds or so, add the tofu. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and let cook 1-2 minutes. Add the frozen peas and cook, stirring, another minute or so. Stir the sauce mixture once more to loosen any cornstarch on the bottom and make sure the pan is still over high heat. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir the pan with a spatula immediately. Let the sauce thicken, stirring, and taste for seasoning, adding extra soy sauce or salt and pepper. Finally, add the scallions and give a final toss. Serve immediately with rice.
(for 2 servings)
14 oz. pack organic tofu: $2.49
1/2 cup frozen peas (at $3/small bag): $0.50
2 cloves garlic: $0.10
1″ piece ginger: $0.15
1 Tb chili-bean sauce (at $3.50/small jar): $0.75
1 scallion (at $1.99/bunch): $0.33
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 3 teaspoons soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste: $0.25
Two brownie points: Like it or hate it, there’s no doubting the healthfulness of tofu. Rather than compare its benefits strictly to meat protein, there are many unique benefits of this plant-based protein, from helping to balance bad cholesterol and protecting against cancer to providing antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s not just a good substitute for meat, basically. It’s a good substitute for just about anything, and really deserves to be eaten once in a while.
Six maple leaves: Also, tofu is produced industrially with much efficiency, from beans that can be stored quite a while from harvest. So it’s reliably available year-round, and many brands have certified organic tofu that won’t break the bank. Perhaps the best tofu is that freshly made, so if you come across a Korean deli or Chinatown market with unlabeled, fresh tofu floating in baskets, it’ll be a cleaner-tasting product made presumably more locally, too. Frozen peas are a great substitute for the fresh version, unlike other frozen vegetables. The chili-bean sauce I’ve used was imported from Taiwan — actually, I personally brought it back on the plane — so no points for locality there, and I wouldn’t encourage non-imported brands of it, either.